HomeArticlesCould the Kingdom Come in the First Century? Interpreting Mt. 4:17.

Could the Kingdom Come in the First Century? Interpreting Mt. 4:17.

The question from the title, “Could the Kingdom come in the first century?” is to cast the question at a common dispensational opinion traditionally taught that the Kingdom was literally offered during the first century to the Jewish nation. Prior to pursuing the answer to this question, I will acknowledge that I am a dispensationalist (as should be evident from previous posts), and that I am not a progressive dispensationalist. However, I do seek to stay honest to the biblical text with a literal historical-grammatical method of hermeneutics. I will not follow traditional teachings that have multitudes of popular authors as representatives of a certain view from any theological system.

To present the position of traditional dispensationalist in their own words, here are a few quotes representative of this idea. Andrew M. Woods makes a number of expressions in his book The Coming Kingdom. “The opportunity for the first-century Israel to enthrone Christ and consequently experience these blessings is known as ‘the offer of the kingdom.’”1)Andrew M. Woods, The Coming Kingdom, Grace Gospel Press (Duluth, MN: 2016), p. 55 He explains, “Had first-century Israel enthroned Christ, this earthly kingdom would have become a reality not only for the nation but also for the entire world. Israel’s covenants would have been fulfilled, and the Times of the Gentiles would have been terminated. This offer of the kingdom to the first-century Israel should be interpreted and understood as a bona fide offer.”2) Andrew M. Woods, The Coming Kingdom, Grace Gospel Press (Duluth, MN: 2016), p. 58

The major passage presented as a proof text for this doctrine is Matthew 4:17, “From that time Jesus began to preach, and to say, Repent: for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” It should be noted that this verse actually is not an offer in any way, but that it mentions the command to repent in conjunction to the phrase that the kingdom is at hand, meaning near. It is inferred that the expression the kingdom is nigh is to be understood as an offer for the Millennial kingdom to be inaugurated if the offer is accepted. Our intention in this article is to interpret what it mean that the kingdom is nigh.

Charles Ryrie also considered this a “bona fide offer of the kingdom” and identifies: “But even if we cannot fully understand or explain how there can be a genuine offer of the kingdom by the One who knew and planned that it would be rejected we must not suggest that the offer was insincere.”3)Charles Ryrie, Dispensationalism (Revised and Expanded), Moody Press (Chicago, IL: 1995), p. 151 This quote shows that the whole concept of this teaching is riddled with questions even by those who teach it. How could there be an honest offer if God foreknew it would be rejected? However, our question is whether there even is an offer at all to the first-century Jews.

This idea has been attacked by Amillennialists, Postmillenialists, and Progressive Dispensationalists with the claim that it would circumvent the crucifixion. Lewis Sperry Chafer had already answered such accusations in his definitive 8 volume Systematic Theology text first published in 1948. Rightfully acknowledging God’s sovereignty and man’s free will, he writes, “Whatever occurs is usually directly or indirectly due to man’s action in free will; it is therefore natural to suppose that God is in some way subject to human determination, not realizing that God not only knows beforehand the choice His creatures will make, but is Himself able to work in them both to will and to do His own good pleasure.” 4)Lewis Sperry Chafer, Systematic Theology, Dallas Seminary Press (Dallas, TX: 1948), Vol. 5, p. 347 After mentioning a number of occasions from Scripture that include God’s foreknowledge and man’s free will, he elaborates:

Beyond all these confusing crosscurrents of determinations is the simple fact of revelation which asserts that the kingdom was offered as it was predicted it would be offered by Messiah’s forerunner, it was rejected, it was delayed until the immediate value of Christ’s death and resurrection as seen in the outcalling of the Church could be made effective. In this connection it will not be overstressed that, so far as the vision accorded the prophets of the Old Testament is concerned, there was in the program for Israel, as predicted, no separation between the two advents. But for the Church intercalation—which was wholly unforeseen and is wholly unrelated to any divine purpose which preceded it or which follows it—Israel would be expected to pass directly from the crucifixion to her kingdom; for it was not the death of Christ and His resurrection which demanded the postponement, but rather an unforeseen age.5) Lewis Sperry Chafer, Systematic Theology, Dallas Seminary Press (Dallas, TX: 1948), Vol. 5, pp. 348-349

To simplify Chafers’ premise, there is a bona fide offer of the kingdom which was foreknown by God to be rejected by the Jews, which God had planned to be the dispensation for Gentiles to become stewards of the gospel which was unknown from the Old Testament. However, had the Jews accepted the Kingdom in the first century, it would not have circumvented the cross, for God had foreordained the crucifixion to redeem mankind. The kingdom would have, therefore, been inaugurated immediately after the resurrection with the enthronement of the risen Christ.

Essentially, I find a few problems with the logic of the alleged program. First, if the kingdom offer was accepted, how would Christ, their received king, be crucified? Secondly, the prophets prophesied His rejection of His own people (Isaiah 53:2-3). Thirdly, Andrew Woods says, “The Gospels carefully reveal Israel’s rejection of the kingdom offer. The turning point is found in Matthew 12:24.”6) Andrew M. Woods, The Coming Kingdom, Grace Gospel Press (Duluth, MN: 2016), p. 64 But how is this the point of the kingdom rejection when Christ was received as the King at the Triumphant Entry (Matthew 21:1-9)? Fourthly, how could the Galilean Pharisees rejection of Christ by ascribing His miracle to Beelzebub be the national rejection of the kingdom. The common people overwhelmingly received Him and we should expect the national rejection to be rooted in the nation’s capital, Jerusalem, by its leaders if not the majority populous. Fifthly, it is difficult to claim that the current dispensation providing the Gentiles with the stewardship of the Gospel is not perceivable from the Old Testament. Paul argued from the Old Testament prophesies that this was revealed in Scriptures (Romans 15:9 cf. 2 Samuel 22:50; Psalm 18:49; Roman 15:10 cf. Deuteronomy 32:43; Romans 15:11 cf. Psalm 117:1; Romans 15:12 cf. Isaiah 11:10). Paul further establishes the Gentile dispensation in Galatians 3:8, stating, “And the scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the heathen through faith, preached before the gospel unto Abraham, saying, In thee shall all nations be blessed.”

Dispensationalists frequently interpret the word “mystery” as something unrevealed in a previous age, but it need not mean anything more than something not understood. Obviously, according to Paul, the Gentile mission was foreseen and revealed in the Old Testament. For example, Woods wrote, “both the kingdom mysteries and church are unrevealed in the Old Testament and yet disclosed in the New Testament.”7) Andrew M. Woods, The Coming Kingdom, Grace Gospel Press (Duluth, MN: 2016), p. 80 Ryrie claimed, “A concordance examination of the word body indicates that the idea of a body into which redeemed people are placed is nowhere found in the Old Testament…. This further supports that the mystery of the equality of Jews and Gentiles in the one Body of Christ was unknown and unrevealed in the Old Testament.”8) Charles Ryrie, Dispensationalism (Revised and Expanded), Moody Press (Chicago, IL: 1995), p. 134 The first major problem with this comment is that it is dependent upon a word study from a concordance instead of a study of scripture in context to identify conceptual parallels. For example, the idea of multiple people being united as one “body” is evident in the Old Testament passages such as Numbers 14:15; Judges 6:16; 20:1, 8, 11; Ezra 3:1; Nehemiah 8:2. Secondly, the argument is based on circular reasoning assuming the Bible actually teaches a universal church concept, which is actually absent from the New Testament.9)see Heath Henning, The Church: Local or Universal?, January 6, 20019; https://truthwatchers.com/the-church-local-or-universal/

Furthermore, Woods discusses and rejects the opinion of some dispensationalists, that the kingdom was once again offered to Israel in the book of Acts. His third argument against this option, he stated, “If the offer of the kingdom and its imminent appearing is once again on the table in early Acts, then the mystery inter-advent age was hardly a certainty, thereby making Christ’s teaching of its inauguration seem disingenuous.”10) Andrew M. Woods, The Coming Kingdom, Grace Gospel Press (Duluth, MN: 2016), p. 70 This point seems to be self-deconstructive to his own view of the original bona fide offer in the Gospels. If the kingdom was truly offered, how can there be an inter-advent age be certain if the Jews could have accepted and have the kingdom inaugurated? Also, such a comment from Woods assumes the Gentile age is prophesied in the Old Testament, which he seems to reject being a mystery. His seventh point against an offer in Acts mentions, “Acts establishes that the timing of the coming of the kingdom is already something that has been fixed by the Father’s authority (Acts 1:6-7).”11) Andrew M. Woods, The Coming Kingdom, Grace Gospel Press (Duluth, MN: 2016), p. 72 The timing was always in the Father’s authority, even during Christ ministry in the Gospels (Matthew 24:36). Again, this point deconstructs his own view of a bona fide offer. His eighth argument references, “all Peter is saying in this sermon [Acts 3:19-21] is that national repentance (Acts 3:19a) will be needed before Jesus can return from heaven (Acts 3:20-21) and usher in the kingdom conditions of ‘the times of refreshing’ (Acts 3:19b) and ‘the restoration of all things’ (Acts 3:21).”12) Andrew M. Woods, The Coming Kingdom, Grace Gospel Press (Duluth, MN: 2016), p. 72 But this is all that is essential being stated in Matthew 4:17, a call for national repentance because the kingdom is nigh.

Repentance is intrinsically linked to the inauguration of the kingdom. This concept is so abundantly presented in rabbinic literature it could fill a book on the one topic. One quote that is relevant to this discussion is from Pesikta Rabbati 44.9.

Five things bring redemption. A man’s dire distress may be the cause of his being redeemed: In thy distress, when all these things are come upon thee (Deut 4:30). A time already set may be the cause of his being redeemed: in the end of days (ibid). A man’s turning in repentance may be the cause: thou wilt turn to the Lord thy God (ibid). The mercy of God may be the cause: For the Lord thy God is a merciful God (Deut 4:31). Or the merit of the Fathers may be the cause: he will not… forget the covenant of thy fathers (ibid). The return to God in itself a cause of redemption, also draws after it two other causes of redemption, namely the mercy of God and the merit of the Fathers[.]13) Pesikta Rabbati (trans. William G. Braude), Yale University Press (Dallas TX: 1968), Vol. 2, p. 778

Hence, in Jewish thought, repentance is a requirement of redemption individually and on a national level to bring about the Messiah. The quote further and in conjunction with man’s volitional repentance includes a preordained time established by God for this redemption. Modern Jewish scholars still proclaim this factor. Jacob Immanuel Schochet explains, “There are a number of ways conductive to hasten the Messianic redemption prior to its final date…. First and foremost among these mitzvot [commandments] is the principle of teshuvah [repentance or turning]…. Teshuvah, the comprehensive principle of submission to G-d and His will, thus is the most obvious means to bring about the immediate coming of Mashiach.”14)Jacob Immanuel Schochet, Mashiach: The principle of Machiach and the Messianic Era in Jewish Law and Tradition (New Expanded Edition), S.I.E. (New York, NY: 1992), p. 48-49 I have discussed the relevance of repentance and the kingdom in a previous post. After citing a number of ancient Jewish texts I closed with the comment:

These passages from the Psuedepigrapha reflect a number of passages from Scriptures that mention the necessity of Israel’s repentance for the end time kingdom to come (Deuteronomy 4:30-31; Hosea 14:1-7). Hosea 3:5 places this time of repentance in the latter days with David as king who is apparently resurrected to reign under the Messiah (cf. Ezekiel 34:23-24, 37:24-25). Zechariah 12:9-12 places Israel’s repentance in conjunction with their reception of Jesus Christ at His return being in agreement with Ezekiel 36:24-28 setting their repentance with the regeneration of the entire nation. Peter also preached this message to the Jews, concluding that all the prophets are in agreement with his message: “Repent ye therefore, and be converted, that your sins may be blotted out, when the times of refreshing shall come from the presence of the Lord; and he shall send Jesus Christ, which before was preached unto you: whom the heaven must receive until the times of restitution of all things, which God hath spoken by the mouth of all his holy prophets since the world began. For Moses truly said unto the fathers, A prophet shall the Lord your God raise up unto you of your brethren, like unto me; him shall ye hear in all things whatsoever he shall say unto you. And it shall come to pass, that every soul, which will not hear that prophet, shall be destroyed from among the people.” (Acts 3:19-23) He also indicated that Jesus Christ was crucified and ascended to heaven for the purpose of giving repentance to Israel (Acts 5:30-31). Paul implied that Israel’s lack of repentance was in God’s plan to allow the gentiles an opportunity to repent and be grafted in to this salvation which will also place Israel’s repentance at the end prior to the kingdom being established (Romans 11:19-27).15)Heath Henning, “Thy Kingdom Come: early Jewish views of the Messianic Kingdom,” February 16, 2019; https://truthwatchers.com/kingdom-come/

Notable from this quotation is Peter indicated in Acts 5:30-31 that Christ needed to be crucified, resurrected, and ascended to the Father’s right hand in order for Israel to experience this repentance. That means there could be no offer of a kingdom because God has preordained when it will be inaugurated, but that time could not happen until Israel’s national repentance that could only occur after Christ ascended to the Father, making the kingdom only possible during a Second Coming, not during His First Advent. This is an important point since even ancient Jewish Midrashim acknowledge a suffering Messiah who would return for a second coming.

Commenting on Ruth  2:14—“The fifth interpretation makes it refer to the Messiah. COME HITHER: approach to royal state. AND EAT OF THE BREAD: refers to the bread of royalty; AND DIP THY MORSEL IN THE VINEGAR refers to his sufferings, as it is said, But he was wounded because of our transgressions (Isa. LIII, 5)…. R. Berekiah said in the name of R. Levi: The Future Redeemer will be like the former Redeemer [i.e. Moses]. Just as the former Redeemer revealed himself and later was hidden from them (and how long was he hidden? Three months, as it is said, And they met Moses and Aaron (Ex. V. 20), so the future Redeemer will be revealed to them, and then be hidden from them. (Ruth Rabbah 5.6)16)Midrash Rabbah, Ruth (trans. Rabbi Dr. L. Rabinowitz), Soncino Press (New York, NY: 1983), Vol. 8, pp. 64-65

 

This thought is repeated in a number of ancient Jewish texts (Pesikta de-Rab Kahana 5.8;17)Pesikta De-Rab Kahana (Trans. William G. Braude and Israel J. Kapstein), Jewish Publication Society of America (Philladelphia, PA: 1978), pp. 103-104 Pesikta Rabbati 15.10).18)Pesikta Rabbati (Trans. William Braude) Yale University Press (Dallas, TX: 1968), Vo. 1, pp. 319-320

It was first and foremost necessary (Greek δει) for Christ to be crucified and resurrected as prophesied throughout the Old Testament (Matthew 16:21; 26:54; Mark 8:31; Luke 9:22; 13:33; 17:25; 22:37; 24:7, 26, 44, 46; John 12:34; 20:9; Acts 3:21; 17:3). Repeatedly Christ proclaimed the scripture must be fulfilled pertaining to His suffering (Matthew 26:53-54, 56), and He prophesied His coming crucifixion and resurrection (Mark 9:31; 10:32-34; 14:24-28; Luke 9:44; 18:31-33; John 18:11; Acts 2:23-24). Christ was received as king after the alleged offer of the kingdom was rejected (Matthew 21:1-11; Mark 11:1-10; Luke 19:29-38; John 12:12-15). In Matthew 21:43 the future passive indicative is found “the kingdom of God shall be taken away from you, and given to a nation bringing forth the fruits thereof.” So how can the offer have been rejected in Matthew 12:24 if the taken away of it is in the future after the alleged rejection and sealing of such a fate? This verse definitely cannot be understood as Kingdom Now theologians insist that the kingdom was permanently taken away from Israel to replace the Jews with Gentiles as God’s new chosen people. No Jewish viewed the kingdom as having been in their possession during the first century since they were ruled by Gentiles. The four kingdoms of Daniel’s visions had to be overthrown and replaced with God’s kingdom physically ruling on earth through the messianic king in Jewish thought.

Quoting Woods’ words against his own view once again, he writes of his kingdom offered perspective:

This interpretive framework allows the various manifestations of the kingdom in the life of Christ (Matt. 12:28), such as His miracles, the exorcising of demons, and His Transfiguration (Matt. 17:1-8) to be interpreted as mere tokens of the coming kingdom rather than announcing an inaugurated form of the kingdom. Just as the Hebrews had ‘tasted’ of ‘the powers of the age to come’ (Heb. 6:5), Christ’s miracles should be understood in the same manner. They do not represent the manifestation of the age to come, but rather epitomize a mere foreshadowing of it.19) Andrew M. Woods, The Coming Kingdom, Grace Gospel Press (Duluth, MN: 2016), p. 213

I fully agree with this comment, but not within his interpretive framework of a bona fide kingdom offer. My understanding of Matthew 4:17 is that Christ was not offering the kingdom, but revealing Himself as the King (as a circumlocution), and He used the term kingdom to represent Himself present in their midst as the central authority of the kingdom they desired. Quoting Woods again that puts further validity to my understanding of Matthew 4:17, he writes, “To the Jewish mind king and kingdom went together like horse and carriage.”20) Andrew M. Woods, The Coming Kingdom, Grace Gospel Press (Duluth, MN: 2016), p. 218 In my view, Matthew 4:17, Christ was announcing Himself as king who would in the future establish the kingdom, but that kingdom was not being offered to the first century Jews. He needed to be rejected by His people and die as an atonement, ascended to the right hand of the Father so He could return to establish the kingdom at a future date.

Woods also wrote, “the Lord pronounces judgment upon that generation (Matt. 23:36-39), for failing to recognize the hour of their visitation (Luke 19:42, 44; Dan. 9:26). In other words, they were judged because they failed to accept the offer.”21) Andrew M. Woods, The Coming Kingdom, Grace Gospel Press (Duluth, MN: 2016), p. 214 He almost had it correct if not so insistent on this offer idea. They were judged because they failed to recognize the king Who had visited them in person. Woods further expounds Luke 17:21 by concluding, “All of this to say, that the kingdom was very much in the midst of the nation (Luke 17:21) at Christ’s First Advent since the king was present. This reality explains why Christ in verse 20 noted ‘The kingdom of God is not coming with signs to be observed.’ In other words, because the kingdom through the presence of the king stood in their very midst, the kingdom, in this sense, was indeed already a present reality and was not preceded by various signs.”22) Andrew M. Woods, The Coming Kingdom, Grace Gospel Press (Duluth, MN: 2016), p. 220 This makes more sense of all the passages pertaining to the alleged kingdom offered, especially the kingdom being taken away from the Jews and given to the Gentiles (Matthew 21:43) making it their stewardship to pronounce the Gospel of Christ.

Taken the kingdom in Mathew 4:17 as a reference to Christ as revealing Himself as the king upholds the very physical thought of the kingdom from the Old Testament, remains consistent with historical Jewish sources from Second Temple period, makes better sense of the passages than the alleged bona fide offer of the kingdom to the first century Jews, and avoids the spiritualized interpretation of Progressive Dispensationalists, Kingdom Now theologians and Amillenialists claim of the kingdom being present and future (the present being in our hearts as believers making the kingdom a spiritual reality instead of the physical expectation developed from the Old Testament). His kingdom is present at His personal visitation to the Jews both for healing and judgement (Luke 10:9, 10), not in our hearts as we allow Him to rule in our lives. Furthermore, Christ taught the kingdom was said to be nigh at the end of the tribulation (Matthew 24:33; Luke 21:31). This is consistent with His foreknowledge of His Second Coming and what is revealed in Scripture. This interpretation is the simplest interpretation and can be held consistently to interpret the cumulative passages referring to the kingdom. Furthermore, both dispensationalists could agree with it (and cannot refute it since it is also a part of their explanations), and other eschatological views could not refute this explanation, though they may not consider it favorable to their desired exegesis. One of the weakness of any other interpretation of Matthew 4:17 is that all other options depend on circular reasoning. One must presuppose their particular interpretation in order to read it into their interpretation of Matthew 4:17.

One final note to the reader. In disagreeing about the bona fide kingdom offer and quoting a number of times from Andrew Woods book The Coming Kingdom, I am not implying it was a book filled with false teachings. It had a lot of good material in it which was well worth reading and would recommend it to many people to help them understand the biblical teaching on the kingdom as opposed to the many false teachings being taught on this important topic.

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Heath Henning
Heath Henning
Heath heads the Set Free addictions ministry on Friday nights at Mukwonago Baptist Church and is involved in evangelism on the University of Wisconsin Whitewater campus, offering his expertise in apologetics at the weekly Set Free Bible Study every Tuesday evening. He currently lives in East Troy, Wisconsin with his wife and nine children. Read Heath Henning's Testimony

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